Happy 80th Birthday, Pete Best

Born November 24, 1941: Pete Best: original drummer for the Beatles.

Best’s tenure with the group was short (almost exactly two years), but occurred during a highly significant time period. He was hired to accompany the group on their first residency in Hamburg in August 1960, when the band was so ragtag that they had no drummer and their bass player was Stu Sutcliff, a guy who could barely play his instrument. Hamburg proved to be the crucible of their act. Playing long shows every night of the week, the key members of the group became highly skilled performers, and the band itself became a cohesive and entertaining ensemble. When they returned to Liverpool, they became a phenomenon. Best, considered movie star handsome, was a fan favorite, especially with girls. His playing style suited the Beatles’ early, proto-punk Cavern sound.

The rift came in August, 1962, when the group signed with their record label Parlophone/EMI. Producer George Martin suggested that the group use a session drummer on their recordings, which was not, by the way, unusual. Consider the many Beach Boys records that use Wrecking Crew talent instead of Dennis Wilson. He assumed Best would be retained for the live act, as did the Beatles manager Brian Epstein. After all, he had a huge fan base. Instead, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison used the request as an excuse to fire Best. It must have seemed a crazy move to many at the time. Were they jealous of him? That case has been made, but whether they were or they weren’t, they also had others reasons, most of which seem legitimate. One is that Best basically only knew one beat. Apart from Martin’s feeling that Best was ragged on tempo, he also couldn’t really play with nuance or subtlety or switch up a mood between or during songs. (In a way, he was ahead of his time. He was a punk drummer. He was the musical father of the likes of Tommy Ramone.) Apart from that, Best was a loner, and apparently not very cheerful. This was one of the things that probably made him attractive to girls apart from his good looks — that sullen face, it was like James Dean, it was rockabilly, it made him seem cool. But, it wasn’t just a pose. He didn’t like to banter and joke and kid around and so he seemed to go against the grain of the overall group vibe. He was distant at a time when the rest were bonding. And so, the group recruited Ringo Starr of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who was more of a personality, and as time has shown, a better musician.

One thing that’s always been a puzzle about Best is how THOROUGHLY he faded away, though, how utterly he and his former bandmates became alienated after the split. Because there were several strong ties. The major one was Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ road manager and driver, and later the head of Apple Corps. Aspinall had gone to school with Paul and George, but he was also a close friend of Pete’s. In fact, he was closer to Pete than anyone knew for years, for he fathered a child with Pete’s mother Mona Best, who was only 16 or 17 years older than him and the older Beatles. Aspinall was with the Beatles to the end and beyond, yet he was also connected to Best. It seems odd that neither Best nor the Beatles worked out a way to keep Best in the fold. (Consider the Rolling Stones’ Ian Stewart, for example — fired as an official member, but retained as their roadie and a frequent session musician). It’s that working class Liverpool pride, I’m thinking. He’d be an equal partner in the Beatles, or nothing. Yet, Best was never able to make a success of any of the groups he formed after the sacking. Seems like the worst of all possible worlds. More intriguing: why weren’t the Beatles more conciliatory towards HIM? They owed him a lot. Not only had Mona’s Casbah Club been one of their earliest venues back when they were the Quarrymen, but Mona had been a sort of de facto manager to them before Brian Epstein took over.

Pete now and a pic of Mona

I also want to suggest a possible Best legacy that stayed with the group, a sort of elephant in the room, as it were — an Indian elephant. Pete had been born in British India. His biological dad, a man named Scanland, was a British officer who was killed in the war. Mona’s second husband, Johnny Best, also served with the British army during WWII, though his family was mostly connected to sports promoting (one way in which the Bests were likely more savvy about publicity than Messers Lennon, McCartney and Harrison would have been or could have been). As for Mona, her father was an Irish officer in India by the name of Shaw. I’ve not been able to discover much about her mother. But with her dark beauty Mona sure looks like she may have been part South Asian, and Pete looks a little Indian too. But even if they weren’t ethnically such, they surely must have brought back some of the culture with them. Were the Beatles exposed to that during those early years? They sure dove headfirst into Indian music, literature, art, and religion just a few years later. Did that fascination start with the Bests?

Whatever the case, Best seems to have it together in his own right these days. Check out his official website here.